Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sister Marie

“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”

Proverbs 31:30-31

The word “works” always makes me squirm, for without grace and faith, works are meaningless. I was raised in a “works-based” church, one that did not know and thereby never taught that it was Grace, amazing Grace, which mattered. It was a lifelong battle to shake off and put away the false teachings that had buried their knife to the hilt in my heart and God eventually brought a day of victory to me. However, within the confines of this narrow-minded congregation of my childhood, God had put into place a reminder, a remnant if you will, of His Truth, His Love, and His Grace. Her name was Sister Marie.

Sister Marie was a round and plump woman and, as was the custom and belief of the church, wore her black and uncut hair piled atop her head. By all appearances, she strictly adhered to the tenets that were fearfully ordained by the Elders: always in a dress, no makeup, and having about her bearing the strictures that had been applied by them. Obedient and circumspect, the women of the church knew their places. But when Sister Marie walked into a room, it was as though the Pied Piper of Hamlin had just entered and children would magically be drawn to her side. Her presence demanded our attention, which she received with a smile and a warm embrace, never once chiding us for the onslaught that hit her every Sunday. Put plainly and simply, we loved Sister Marie and she loved children.

I recall a time that Sister Marie saw the need for ministry to the growing number of children that attended each Sunday. She felt that we would all benefit greatly with a Sunday school and approached the Elders, volunteering herself and her time to instruct us. Of course, she was soundly reproached and rebuked and the idea was never mentioned again. To do so would have been tantamount to heresy and she would have been shunned from that point on. But, God has ways of working around ignorance and stubbornness, and if He couldn’t have it that way, He would have it another.

The children would carefully watch where Sister Marie settled - which was usually in a pew towards the rear - and rush to see which one could claim the seat of honor at her right side (for her husband, Brother Fred, always sat in the aisle seat to her left). Our parents were never concerned, fearing that we would be unruly or disruptive, because Sister Marie seemed to exude a gentle and loving command for obedience and respect within the confines of the church. We may have giggled and wiggled while the adults were still visiting, but once the service began, we became the angels she and our parents expected. Besides, the church building was small and Momma and Daddy made sure we were always within reach if the need should arise.

Sister Marie knew what it took to help a child sit still on a hard pew for three hours. Along with her King James tucked under her arm, she carried a large handbag that held the instruments and tools necessary to accomplish this daunting job. At the appropriate time, when she sensed that we were approaching a moment of unsettledness, she would pull one of these mysteries from her purse that were lovingly prepared ahead of time. Like a magician would pull a rabbit from a hat, out of the deep confines of her purse a handkerchief would suddenly appear. Unfolding its edges that were tucked around an invisible lumpy shape, we would look with delight at the mints and candies that nestled in her palm and which instantly took our minds off our discomfort. And much to our surprise and awe, she always knew the exact number of mints that would be needed on any given Sunday, as if a head-count had been taken prior to our arrival.

A palm-sized spiral notebook and the stubby ends of pencils, just the right size for our small hands, would be whisked out at another moment’s notice. My sister, the other children, and I would while away a good portion of our expected attendance, drawing scenes from our innocent imaginations and playing “Hangman” and “Tic-Tac-Toe”. A wallet with pictures of people we didn’t know, but wondered about, would keep us musing for many precious moments. A ring of keys that opened doors to castles; a handful of coins to count to a million; a compact of face powder that smelled like Sister Marie yet reflected our tiny faces in its little mirror. Her supply was limitless, and no sooner did we think we’d gotten to the bottom of it, the service would end - just in time.

As I look back upon these things, I now realize that God blessed us tremendously with Sister Marie. I didn’t know at the time that God was using her to prepare our hearts for Him. The Elders may have chosen not to allow her to teach us, but God placed us by her side on many Sundays so that, through her, He could teach us of His love and grace that went unmentioned in the church service. She exemplified Jesus Christ by her desire to teach Him to us, by her kind and gentle face, by her handbag of “distractions”, and by the taste of the sweet mint that has lingered on my tongue to this very day. I have no doubt Sister Marie knew her Savior and what was and was not required of her because she hid Him in the handbag she carried with her each Sunday and revealed Him to the children who sat by her side.

When I see her again, I will have a mint for her in my hand.


Leslie said...

Oh, if only every child could have a Sister Marie in their lives! And God's love sent through her to you is still being felt today by everyone who reads this. God's message through her acts of love and kindness on those precious Sunday mornings is still being heard today through your retelling of this memory. Thank you, Karen, for sharing this.

Mama Mimi (Dana) said...

This, I believe is my favorite of your works. I agree. I believe Sister Marie is in heaven, visiting with dad and maybe she'll have a mint waiting for us.

Marlene said...

I wish that Sister Marie's children could read your tribute to their mother. She was a very special lady.